At first glance, Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographic portrait of King Henry VIII of England is arresting: his camera has captured the tactility of Henry’s luxurious furs and silks, the elaborate embroidery of his doublet, and the light reflecting off of each shimmering jewel. The contours of the king’s face are so lifelike that he appears to be almost threedimensional. It seems as though the twenty-first century artist has traveled back in time nearly five hundred years to photograph his royal subject.
While Sugimoto’s portraits of historical figures appear to capture a lived moment in time, they are fictions. These portraits are in fact at least twice removed from the subject: his photograph captures a wax figure that has been created by a sculptor from either a photographic portrait or a painted one. The portraits of wax figures, which in this volume are presented alongside a handful of portraits of living subjects and memento mori, call into question what it is the portrait captures.
As with his other major bodies of work—'Dioramas', 'Seascapes', 'Theaters'—Sugimoto’s 'Portraits' address the passage of time and history. We take it for granted that a photograph of a living subject is true, but what does that mean?